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Project Management for Beginners and Experts

Episode 318: How to Manage an Urgent Project (Free)

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Stephen Wearne

Have you ever had an urgent or unexpected project come across your desk? Not just an important project, but an urgent one? If you answer is “Yes - I have managed urgent projects” then you are actually in the minority because most of us will actually never have to manage such a project. Professor Stephen Wearne explains this in his book “Managing the Urgent and Unexpected” as follows:

"Urgent and unexpected projects have to be rare in business or government to be economically and socially tolerable. Any such urgent and unexpected work demands an instant start, in contrast to the often lengthy processes of investigation, evaluation, development, selection and planning that is normal normal in businesses and public services before any proposed work is started. The chance that any one person except those in the emergency services will ever manage such a project is small."

Stephen then continues in his book with saying something that I disagree with just a little bit. He says that it’s not possible to know who should learn the lessons learned from these urgent and unexpected projects in order to be prepared. In my opinion, I know exactly who should learn from them -- we project managers should! And that is why I have asked him to come onto the program.

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to episode number 318. This is the Project Management Podcast at www.pm-podcast.com and I'm Cornelius Fichtner. Welcome back. Have you ever had an urgent or unexpected project come across your desk? Not just an important project, but an urgent one? If your answer is “Yes - I have managed urgent projects” then you are actually in the minority because most of us will probably never have to manage such a project. Stephen Wearne explains this in his book “Managing the Urgent and Unexpected” as follows:

"Urgent and unexpected projects have to be rare in business or government to be economically and socially tolerable. Any such urgent and unexpected work demands an instant start, in contrast to the often lengthy process of investigation, evaluation, development, selection and planning that is normal in business and public services before any proposed work is started. Therefore, the chance that any one person except those in emergency services will ever manage such a project is small."

This episode of the Project Management Podcast is sponsored by the Agile PrepCast. Are you PMP-certified and want to earn 37 PDUs quickly and for less than $5 per hour? That’s no problem with the Agile PrepCast, it not only prepares you for your PMI-ACP exam but also qualifies for a ton of PMP PDUs. Visit www.agileprepcast.com/pdu for the details.

Stephen Wearne then continues in his book by saying something that I disagree with just a little bit. He says that it’s not possible to know who should learn the lessons learned from these urgent and unexpected projects in order to be prepared. In my opinion, I know exactly who should learn from them -- we project managers should! And that is why I have asked him to come onto the program. And now, make it fast, make it urgent. Enjoy the interview.

Podcast Interview

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello, Stephen. Welcome to the Project Management Podcast.

Stephen Wearne: Hello, hello.

Cornelius Fichtner: What would you say that our listeners are going to get out of our conversation today, a takeaway that they can use on their own project based on your book Managing the Urgent and Unexpected?

Stephen Wearne: I guess about three levels of things. One is how to use the word urgent or how to question the perhaps overuse of word urgent or reflect on how many times I’ve probably said to somebody, “It’s urgent, please get on with it”, or reflect that if I’d said it’s not urgent, they’d never do it at all. So it’s pretty easy to use the word. So one of the things I think we learn from looking at the specific cases is that urgent could mean something over and above fast track so you could say there are normal projects where you proceed economically, where you’re cost-conscious of time, care about safety, then there are fast track projects which you have perhaps good reason to spend money faster. But over and above that, the instances, the cases I looked at were where there was a real reason for gain as fast as is safe, as fast as is practicable. So it’s distinguishing firstly then between spending at a normal speed, spending fast for a good reason and rarely proceeding as fast as possible with cost not being really a control. A long answer, but that I think was a very big learning point.

Cornelius Fichtner: Absolutely. So let’s then start out with the definition, how do you define the urgent and unexpected work that you explore in the book?

Stephen Wearne: I suppose I could go back to being a contractor of nuclear power long ago and say that the pressure was to use your resources continuously. As a supplier, the economic thing was to have the capacity to do the job but to make sure that capacity was always earning money. I then say this: that’s not the interest of the customer. To them, an earlier delivery is worth a bit more money to earn. Then adding to that is that you can pay to go even faster and you can get to the point where it goes as fast as is physically safe. Does that answer your point?

Cornelius Fichtner: It does, it does. As a start, let’s see how this differs from normal work then.

Stephen Wearne: Normal, I think, always means two different things to the supplier/contractor and the customer. The supplier, as I was trying to say, wants to do things at minimum cost and that’s often not exactly at the same speed of delivery as a customer. I mean that’s a common dilemma, in any certainly engineering and construction work, IT projects, but I am saying there is an extreme condition when you want to go as fast as it is physically possible. But the test is does urgent mean the cost does not actually influence the decision to do the work? That is the big question. You say it’s urgent, can I spend as much as it takes to deliver it as fast as is safe? That’s the learning point that I think was learned painfully in some of our cases.

Cornelius Fichtner: Why is that an important point that the money shouldn’t matter?

Stephen Wearne: Only because it’s a question of interpreting what somebody means by a word like urgent. I may think it’s urgent because it’s important to me or because we’re losing a market, because somebody is leaving at the end of the month and they’re the resource almost half of the job before they go. It doesn’t follow the cost of doing that. It’s what somebody else agrees was worth doing.

Cornelius Fichtner: All right, I get it. So let me see if I understood this correctly. So an urgent and unexpected project, somebody decides it’s urgent and unexpected and then really, the litmus test to figure out, is it really urgent and unexpected, it means let’s take a look at the cost – are we willing to pay the cost for this urgent and unexpected work at whatever it costs?

Stephen Wearne: Yes.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay.

Stephen Wearne: Now that’s – sorry, I’m going back to a view of mine as a former project manager. The most important is to think is the first day you’re given the project, questioning do they really want that, is that a tradeoff, have we thought through this out and the other and this is part of that. If somebody says this job is urgent, then there comes out a word this job is priority. Okay, I think often somebody says, yes, it’s priority today, but tomorrow, another job is priority. So what do we mean by priority, what do we mean by urgent? It means that project managers, I think,, has a very difficult task sometimes. He actually managing his own managers. His bosses will tell him he has a project, he has a schedule, he has a budget but it is super urgent, challenging a mister what they meant by word like urgent, do you mean I do it at a speed that suits a contractor, do I do it at a speed that suits some interpretation of urgent?

Cornelius Fichtner: What about these urgent and unexpected projects? What are the chances that a large portion of our listeners are going to have to manage a really urgent and unexpected project that comes up?

Stephen Wearne: Probably very small, but if the organization hasn’t thought through how to deal with incidents of any sort, whether it would be a major problem in an existing project, a major problem on a plant, a small problem on a project. They haven’t thought how to deal with the unexpected, which is urgent. Whether it’s a project or not, they may find themselves less able to move as fast and as economic as they want. Instant management systems are talked about quite a lot in business continuity planning for disasters and it’s exactly the same situation - the unexpected has hit you, you have to make a decision, political business decision, we’ve got to move fast to grab this opportunity to rectify this disaster, to take advantage of whatever it may be, that is unexpected. And is also if we’re to gain advantage or to survive, we deem as urgent. The chances of perhaps doing a whole project like that pretty small but I have a view as I’ve thought through these projects that all project management is really what - not all of it but is essentially a task of being able to manage a surprise. Call it a design chain, call it a bankrupt supplier, call it a changing safety law, whatever it may be, you’re all the time really managing surprises in executing what you plan for, you’re budgeted for, you prepared the team for. So an urgent, unexpected project is just a very big surprise, but within your experience that is probably quite an awful lot of little surprises. Which of us managed a project without having a surprise? If we didn’t, we’re almost redundant. The machinery can run a project if everything happens as we planned it.

Cornelius Fichtner: So in a sense, you’re saying that all projects that we have, in a sense, are a bit urgent, are a bit unexpected. But the really, really big and unexpected projects, those only come up very rarely and we as project managers may not even see what are those really big and urgent ones that are the big surprise. Is that right?

Stephen Wearne: Yeah, yeah.

Cornelius Fichtner: All right. So what can we do today in our organizations to then prepare for this kind of really big surprise and project? What can we do today?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

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